by Michael F. Langhoff
The nature of Triptych is space. It is a line drawn. It is a metaphor that fills the empty pause between three (dis)similar forms. It is within us to fill this space with the forgotten, the known and the new. Our habit is to fill that which is empty and in so doing we become learners. Such a process moves the incorporeal (metaphor) into the practical (utility). This is the power of layering multiple experiences onto or next to one another. With performance, specifically dealing with time, layers create narratives by marking the between space with pauses, applauds, music and light.
Triptych Tongues, performed at Links Hall, suffered from disentangled metaphor. The three performances one after the other seemed distinct in content and dissimilar in approach. By themselves each piece was carefully choreographed and eloquently rendered, however, the apparent reasons for curating the three together comes off as trite and even a bit forced. African Diaspora, feminism, sexual taboos, and a general appeal to the autobiographical underscores the overall sequence of the performances.
A powerful beginning with Ni’Ja Whitson’s Root Shock, the show started out quiet, vulnerable and rich in textured metaphor. Ni’ja’s delicate dance between Orixá ritual and spoken word unraveled a personal history of violence, loss and healing. The performance was therapeutic, and intrinsic to Ni’Ja’s continual ameliorative processes. Out of the three, Root Shock was most human.
Part two, Skyline, moved away from the personal and into the general. Through multiple retellings, we were moved outside of the City, the neighborhood, and the architecture. We became observers of movement, repetition, and a love story through marks, references and gestures of imitated experience. The performance lacked an entrance and as a result, we could only listen to what was said on the other side.
The third performer, Lisa Biggs, chose the role of an actor. Well rehearsed monologues contextualized by historical oppression and human rights activism were supplemented with brazen political gestures and the use of a white blow-up doll dressed in black lingerie. At best the content of the performance came cheap and disallowed for any sort of critical engagement with material. As a result, there was nothing learned, or added to the sequence other than vague agreements over long-standing issues of socio-political oppression and cultural subjectivity.
From start to finish, triptych tongues slowly transformed from a deep emotional engagement into a didactic skit. Moving from Human (Root Shock), to observer (Skyline), to actor (Where Spirit Rides; or the Long Way Home), the performance gradually disengaged itself from the audience. The metaphor revealed itself.
With performance art particularly, I find there exists a delicate balance between content and metaphor that seems to be suspended by meaning. Reveal too much content and there is no room left for engagement. Content flattens out and removes itself from meaningful interactive engagement. On the other hand, too much metaphor strips content of its meaning and whispers empty words into a void. Both have the ability to transform if orchestrated in a manner that is as beautiful as it is critical.
With Triptych Tongues particularly, I state again that it suffers from disentangled metaphor. It unraveled itself as something intentionally meaningful, but failed to maintain its meaning through its execution.
If each piece were experienced separate from the other, perhaps the result would have been more meaningful. Simply because three pieces are similar in content doesn’t mean that placing them next to each other or even in the same show will improve their general reception. This only emphasizes the value of the curator in maintaining the strategic balance between metaphor and content, which is especially lacking in performance art.